Reality Bites

We are new kids on the block, residing in an obscure corner of the Cosmos. For these reasons, there is probably a lot we don’t know or understand about reality.

The simplest way to think of reality is to view it as that which can be perceived by our five senses.

This seems intuitive, but unfortunately, our senses often let us down, or play tricks on us. In addition, this view of reality is also a very subjective one.

The following two proposed definitions of reality are perhaps more robust: (1)

"The first equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. Accordingly, a lot of things we usually regard as real – languages, wars, the financial crisis – are nothing of the sort. Still, it is the most solid one so far, because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.

The second, but also more restrictive, equates reality with the most fundamental things that everything else depends on. In the material world, molecules depend on their constituent atoms, atoms on electrons and a nucleus, which in turn depends on protons and neutrons, and so on. In this hierarchy, every level depends on the one below it, so we might define reality as made up of whatever entities stand at the bottom of the chain of dependence, and thus depend on nothing else.

Following from the second definition, one can view reality as being made out of atoms.

Essentially then: electrons, quarks (up and down) and gluons account for most of the ordinary matter around us. Relative to their sizes, a lot of empty space exists between electrons and the atom's nucleus. If so much of reality is built on emptiness, then what gives observable objects their form and bulk? The answer lies with electrons. Quantum rules dictate that no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state. Thus, no matter how hard you try, you cannot cram two atoms together into the same space. Electrons do all the work when it comes to the structure of matter we see all around us"

So, should one attempt to combine these two definitions of reality; one could say that reality consists of observable matter and energy, and that it exists totally independent of us. It also exists (in whichever form), no matter how we view, believe, or wish it to be.

Furthermore, other forms, or explanations of reality that might exist, will have to be discovered and validated by science for us to accept them.

An interesting (and disturbing) question relates to quantum theory and the proposal that the act of observation causes a wave function of possible states to collapse into a single state or particle. This has lead to the suggestion that perhaps there is no reality independent of our observations of it.

In other words, nothing is real until it is observed, or measured...

However, even though quantum effects have been validated at atomic level, it does not necessarily translate to the macro level (a controversial topic).

The "quantum measurement problem" remains largely unsolved, but a few hypotheses exist to resolve it. One, called decoherence, is gaining momentum as a viable solution. The hypotheses being: the environment causes the classical appearance of macroscopic objects (2).

For now, we probably have to accept that an external reality exists independent of our observations of it. The niggling philosophical question then still remains: But if there is – how can we know?...

A further problem with the standard model (of reality) concerns some significant omissions: There is no account for the invisible dark matter nor the dark energy, which together, make up an estimated 96% of the universe.

It is also silent on concepts that seem to be very real, such as time and gravity.

Such issues aside, the scientific method is the best tool we have to give us a handle on the true nature of reality. Some scientific findings may appear totally counter-intuitive to us, but with sufficient empirical evidence and after withstanding the test of time, we are obliged to accept them (until they get refined or replaced by better evidence).

The ever-pragmatic neurophilosopher, Patricia Churchland, has the following to say on reality (3):

"1) Reality does not conform to what we want it to be. Reality does not care if we do not like the way it is put together. It goes right along being reality anyhow.

Reality does not care if we prefer to disbelieve facts about our heart or brain or the cause of AIDS.

By working with reality, we can sometimes change it by finding a new vaccine or a new machine to harness electricity.

Science - testing, being guided by the facts, revising, testing again - is the best deal we have for getting a bead on reality.

We can regulate how we use science. We need not heed the romantics who insist that the old days were really the good old days.

2) Liking what is true is a psychological state. You can fight reality, hoping your fantasy will prevail, or you can decide to make your peace with reality and come to like it.

What I can and cannot imagine is a psychological fact about me. It is not a deep metaphysical fact about the nature of the Universe."

With all of the above in mind, it should be apparent that we cannot rely on anecdotes, folklore and ancient texts, to tell us anything new or significant about reality.

Claims for anything supernatural as being part of the fabric of reality, just cannot be taken seriously. These include: gods, mystical phenomena, "conscious energy fields" and/or "universal life force energies". All of these will remain nothing more than mere speculation and unjustified beliefs, - until verifiable evidence for them emerges.

Religions, traditions and customs might provide comfort or fulfilment to many. They certainly form part of our cultural diversity, but do not contribute towards our understanding of reality. As long as they are harmless, and so long as participants can readily distinguish myth from reality, such practices can be valued additions to the rich tapestry of Life.

Perhaps the Indian Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello, was onto something when he said:

"Reality is not problematic. Take away human beings from this planet and life would go on, nature would go on in all its loveliness and violence. Where would the problem be? No problem. You created the problem. You are the problem. You identified with “me” and that is the problem. The feeling is in you, not in reality."

Sources quoted:

1)     The Big Questions: New Scientist: The Collection, issue1; (2014)

2)     The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p204-212: Brian Greene

3) Touching a nerve: The Self as Brain (2013): Patricia S. Churchland